Interview with A.J. Finn

Interview with A.J. Finn

What was the inspiration behind The Woman in the Window?

Growing up, I gorged myself on Agatha Christie, the Hardy Boys, and Ellen Raskin’s murder mystery The Westing Game; later, during my teen years, I dove headfirst into Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene, and Ruth Rendell. As a doctoral student at Oxford, I focused on detective fiction, after which I launched a career publishing crime novels. At some point I had a notion that I might one day write a suspense story of my own, but for ages—probably since 1988, when Thomas Harris published The Silence of the Lambs—the market was dominated by serial-killer thrillers. I didn’t have one of those in me. Then, in 2012, Gillian Flynn changed the game with Gone Girl. Here was intelligent, character-driven mystery storytelling of the sort that Highsmith had pioneered sixty years earlier—the very kind of book that I had read and studied and felt I might try to write.

Trouble was, I didn’t have a story, even though the market conditions were favorable. Not until 2015, when I started to rebound from a serious depressive episode, did it occur to me to write about a protagonist who, like me, had trouble leaving the house. By this point, I’d wrestled with severe depression for nearly fifteen years, the entirety of my adult life; after my diagnosis and medication were adjusted, I felt significantly improved and ready to tackle a creative project. I wanted to bring my hard-won empathy to bear on the character of a woman who had lost all faith in the possibilities of life.

Tell us briefly what the book is about?

The Woman in the Window is Rear Window for the 21st century: an agoraphobic woman believes she’s witnessed a crime in a neighboring house but can’t set foot outside to investigate. And soon she feels unsafe even in her own home. Is the danger real, though, or has she imagined it?

Which writers had the greatest influence on you?

Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Ellen Raskin introduced me to the abiding pleasures of suspense fiction when I was a child. As a graduate student, I focused on Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene, and Henry James, a trio of writers whose novels bristle with psychological acuity. So they’re formative influences. Among contemporaries, I’d cite Gillian Flynn, Kate Atkinson, and Tana French, all of whom write substantive books inhabited by three-dimensional characters. I like tart, crisp dialogue, as perfected by Dashiell Hammett and Andrea Camiller; I love the quirky charisma of Carl Hiaasen and Fred Vargas; and for atmosphere, no one tops Dickens.

What are you reading now?

I tend to shuttle between a broad range of books. Right now, I’m re-reading Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog; such a big-hearted novel, such a well-oiled plot. I’m halfway through both Carl Hiaasen’s Native Tongue—among his dizziest, daffiest capers—and Uncle Silas, which I only pretended to have read in grad school. Tomorrow I’ll turn the last page of Amor Towles’s magnificent A Gentleman in Moscow. I’ve just finished Madeline Miller’s spellbinding Circe, a retelling of the Greek myth; The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery’s exploration of invertebrate consciousness; and Strange Weather, Joe Hill’s stunning four-novella collection. Next up: Manhattan Beach, the new Jennifer Egan novel, and a fantasy called Smoke, by Dan Vyleta.

What advice do you have for beginning authors?

I’d encourage all authors—beginning or veteran—to read as much as possible. This will expose you to new ideas and techniques; it’ll help aerate and freshen your work. Beyond that, bear in mind that writing is a job… and like any job, it’s not always (or even often) fun. I don’t wait for the muse to call because I’ve noticed she often develops laryngitis. …I bet she’ll ignore me for saying that.

Are you an outliner?

Absolutely. I’ve heard many authors talk about their characters “surprising” them, but before I tap out a single word, I need to know exactly what’s going to happen, and when, and to whom. Once I’ve plotted the story in depth, I can focus on the sentence-level writing.

Interview with A.J. Finn

Are you a fan of Hitchcock?

I love Hitchcock. Love the style, so luscious in To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Love the urgency—see Shadow of a Doubt, in which Teresa Wright begins to suspect that her uncle and upstairs boarder might be a notorious killer. Love the wit—here I’m thinking of that errant windmill in Foreign Correspondent, the rapid-fire dialogue rattling through The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps. Love the technical virtuosity on showy display in movies like Rear Window, filmed entirely on a massive soundstage, and Rope, which splices ten long takes into what appears to be a single shot. Love the magnificent set pieces: the chase across Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest, the merry-go-round finale of Strangers on a Train, the crows congregating on a jungle gym in The Birds. But most of all, I loved those gutsy plot twists that pull the rug out from under the viewer—plot twists so distinctive and iconic that today we describe them as Hitchcockian. He blindsided his audience effortlessly, even ruthlessly, in Psycho and Vertigo, of course—but to splendid effect in many other films, too. Hitchcock practiced a sophistication and craft that remain indelible, even timeless.

How did you manage to write so many chapters; did the construction of them feel difficult?

Well, some of the chapters are only a paragraph long, which certainly inflates the page count. Going in, I knew I wanted to keep the chapters digestibly brief; I’m a pretty slow reader, and I find that short chapters spur me on. At some point I clocked that the manuscript was going to end up in the 100-chapter range, which appealed to me. Improbably, I didn’t have to meddle with the structure much in order to cap the book at an even 100—it just shook out that way.

You have earned a lot of praise for this book. I think it’ll hit the list. What are you working on now?

Man, I hope so! I’m at work on my second novel, a psychological thriller set in San Francisco.

 

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